Posts Tagged ‘Pliny’

On the quality of information

January 27, 2019

I’ve always read quite widely, beyond my own specialisms as an English teacher and student of literature and into other areas which I could understand, and used to find it rather disconcerting as a teacher when I would mention a fact or some information outside our subject, and a student would ask, “Sir, how come you know so much stuff?’ because it seemed natural and normal to know such things. I don’t think I ever gave a satisfactory answer to the question, but one of my lines was that I always liked to learn a new fact each day, and would offer them that fact as their knowledge gained ration for that day.

There is now an incomprehensible amount of information available, at most people’s fingertips, instantly. Several billion pages out there on the web, last time anyone informed me. And yet, how reliable, how accurate, how findable? The school librarian used to describe the internet as the world’s largest library, but with all the books thrown randomly on the floor.

Back in the past, a learned person could know everything. Reading Pliny’s Natural History is eye-opening: that’s what was known about the world back then. A few hundred years later, in the early seventh century, Isidore of Seville wrote his Etymologies, which has a claim to be the world’s first real encyclopaedia. In a few hundred pages we find everything that was known: as the author, he knew it all… and for that, he has been named patron saint of the internet by the Catholic Church.

Athanasius Kircher lived in the seventeenth century; a polymath, some regard him as the last person able to know everything that was known, in the days before the explosion of knowledge in all areas.

I love the internet and the access it gives me to so much information, and I have learned to be very cautious and very sceptical too. Wikipedia is a stunning resource and one I am happy occasionally to donate money to, and one of its virtues is that anyone can contribute to it, but this obviously raises the question about how reliable some of its information is. Back in the old days of printed reference books, these were compiled by experts, checked before printing, and expensive; the gold standard for more than two centuries was the Encyclopaedia Britannica. But who goes there as their first call for information now? A search for anything throws up hundreds or thousands of hits; who ever goes beyond the first couple of pages? And how many look carefully at the source of the information? If we are dubious, we can’t easily check, so we just move on to another result.

In former times, we could assume that information was accurate because of how it was collated and disseminated; nowadays I suggest it doesn’t often occur to us even to question the accuracy of what we find in a web search, and this does disturb me. Inaccuracy is possible accidentally, because of carelessness, and when anyone can post information online, inaccurate information can be deliberate, and increasingly is; if we are not alerted to engage our critical faculties, this is surely dangerous.

Money is involved behind the scenes, of course. The Encyclopaedia Britannica cost hundreds of pounds, and once printed, a good deal of its information was already out-of-date. Smaller reference books – dictionaries, gazetteers, atlases and the like – all cost money. Nowadays because “free” information is available in vast quantities, we feel entitled to have it for nothing. A good deal of quality information online is only available by subscription, and our first reaction when faced with a need to shell out for information is to look elsewhere for a free source. This is even more true when it comes to news, current affairs, and analysis thereof: we used to buy newspapers and read them without too much complaint; now we expect our news free.

We were shaped – manipulated, perhaps – in the past by the power of the wealthy to control the publication and dissemination of knowledge: no change there, then. And it continues today in different ways, and not many of us are wary enough. All I can hope to do is make more people aware of this; I have no solutions to offer to the problem.

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On the two cultures

March 14, 2017

Years ago C P Snow wrote about two cultures, the arts and the sciences, and the gulf between them. I oversimplify greatly, I know, but it’s an opposition that I regularly return to in terms of my own life and experience.

I’m clearly on the arts side, from my studies at school, at university and my teaching career, as well as my wider interests throughout life: languages, literature, history, religion for starters. I was about to say that science never really got a look in, when I recalled an interest in astronomy from a very young age, and that at primary school, my best friend and I wanted to be the first men on the moon (!). He’s now a Russian Orthodox priest, by the way, or was when I last had news of him…

At boarding school, there was no real opportunity to study science properly, and so the die was cast, I suppose. Maths was interesting, as our teacher was one of the pioneers of what was called ‘modern maths’ in those days; I understood and liked a good deal of it as far as O Level where I managed grade 2, but it was arithmetic, especially mental arithmetic, that was always my strongest point. I retained my interest in astronomy, even going to evening classes at one point, but whenever it strayed into the realms of maths and physics, I have to say that I very quickly got lost, and began to develop a headache. I genuinely do seem to have a mental block about some things once they go beyond a certain level… How much of this is because of my background, my upbringing and how much is the real me, as it were?

I do stray out of the arts bubble in my reading. I’ve long been interested in the calendar and its development over time, and there’s a fair amount of arithmetic involved in that. I’ve read some works on science and astronomy – Carl Sagan on the search for life elsewhere in the cosmos I found particularly interesting, and I have actually read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, though how much of it I understood I cannot honestly say. I like to read about the development of human knowledge in all fields, and find books like Pliny’s Natural History and Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies fascinating because they show us learning about ourselves and our world, developing our understanding over time. This relentless desire for knowledge, and the pursuit of it, are surely one of the things which make us human and allow us to be proud of our species.

I’ve also found myself wondering about gender-related issues in connection with the arts/sciences dichotomy. I have the picture that maths and sciences are largely a male field, and the arts rather more female, and yet I know this is clearly a gross oversimplification. But do some subject areas and ways of thinking lend themselves more readily to brains of one or the other gender, despite the opening up of opportunities in recent decades? And what does this say, if anything, about female scientists and mathematicians of whom I have known many, or male students of literature and languages, of whom I have known rather fewer. And what about me?

Is the separation between arts and sciences inevitable, a result of there nowadays being so much knowledge in so many areas that it’s impossible for anyone to acquire mastery of everything? It has been said that Athanasius Kircher, in the seventeenth century, was the last man who knew everything, as in the amount of available learning and knowledge was capable of being mastered by a single person. I don’t think that the separation does us any good, in terms of our society, or our education systems; I have often felt intellectually poorer for my lack of scientific and mathematical knowledge. And of course currently we are made to feel that only subjects with practical applications, ie maths, science and technology, are worth expending the time and money on, and our country and the world is the poorer for such philistinism. It is curiosity, the act of studying and the eagerness to learn that are important, rather than the subject-matter.

In pursuit of knowledge…

March 3, 2015

Whether one takes a religious line and believes that God gave us reason and intellect and therefore we should use them, or a more secular approach, believing that the human brain is one of the peaks and marvels of evolution, surely our curiosity and ability to pursue knowledge is one of the greatest things about our species; I have always felt this.

Humans have always sought to know and to understand their world; over millennia our knowledge and understanding has grown. Men have sought to write down the sum of what is known – Pliny‘s Natural History is a fascinating example of this, although for me the pioneer has always been Isidore of Seville, a seventh-century monk who wrote what has sometimes been called the world’s first encyclopaedia, his Etymologies, a series of twenty short volumes which attempt to classify, categorise and explain all things that were definitely known in his time. For his pioneering work, he has earned the title of patron saint of the internet, which I think is wonderful. The organisation and content of the Etymologies is at times weird and/ or bizarre, but it’s the effort and determination, and the understanding that it needed to be done, which earns the respect.

Similarly, travellers and explorers, about whom I often write, have dedicated themselves, through the centuries, to finding out about the furthest corners of our world, often at extreme risk and peril; the more I read, the more I am astonished by how much was known and discovered long ago, in many different lands. But then, knowledge can be lost, and I do feel that there is a Western bias in the way that discovery is presented to us nowadays, in that a thing or place in unnown until someone from the west has uncovered it and written about it.

When I was 14, men landed on the moon for the first time and walked about on it; I got myself up at three in the morning to watch the event live on grainy black and white television, and it is still, all those years later, the most marvellous thing that has happened in my lifetime, and it remains etched clearly on my memory. Yes, they knew where they were going, how far it was, and how long it would take, and the risks involved; they did it, and it’s the furthest humanity has physically got in its exploration of the universe. I doubt that I will still be here when men walk on Mars, but I do believe that money, time and effort spent on getting there is worthwhile, compared with many other things on which we waste our time and resources.

When Wikipedia first began, the idea seemed weird: an encyclopaedia anyone could contribute to, and yet as it has evolved and developed it has become a veritable goldmine of information (yes, I know not all of it is reliable, but its reach stretches way beyond anything else) and it lives on in the spirit of Isidore, as a recognition of our search for knowledge.

Umberto Eco: Baudolino

May 11, 2014

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I saw it on the shelf and thought, ‘I haven’t read that for a while!’ picked it up and was off…

It’s a wonderful yarn – a romance, I suppose, to be technically correct – set in mediaeval times, where I’ve always felt Eco is at his best. I don’t call it a novel, because I think Eco has deliberately written a story in the style of the times: the plot is linear, centred around the adventures of a central character, with everyone else as companions or incidental to the plot. It’s a Rabelaisian tale for the twentieth century, complete with the fiction of the teller needing someone to whom to tell his story.

Except – there is also the meta-narrative of the power of the storyteller over the hearer or the reader: we know from the outset that Baudolino is a liar, or an inventor; can he be trusted? but then, what author can?

The story centres around the legend or myth of Prester John, allegedly a Christian king with a great empire somewhere in the unknown lands of the East (perhaps India way, or maybe Ethiopia, depending on which source you follow) with whom various Western monarchs are keep to make an alliance of some kind. Baudolino and his companions create and build the myth, believe in it and eventually set off on the quest. Eco is masterly here, in his understanding of mediaeval ways of thinking and reasoning, and attitudes to knowledge, which is so outside our rational(?) paradigm: something must exist because there is no reason for it not to exist, and, abracadabra! – there it is. “There is no better proof of the truth than the continuity of tradition” – what? Thus the Prester John myth is manufactured, documents created to authenticate it, and so, you can set off to find his kingdom, because it must exist! And if we think it’s a mediaeval trait for humans to be prisoners or dupes of their own inventions, what about the evidence of WMD in Iraq before our invasion…. untruth has its part to play in the powerplays of the world; you can make things have existed just by writing them down, such is the power of the written word. Nor has Eco invented everything himself; much of it is taken from mediaeval sources, such as Mandeville’s travels. If it is in Pliny or Isidore, it must be true!

The imagining of other worlds is done under the influence of alcohol and drugs: no change there, then. There is ample documentation of this in Eco’s fascinating tome The Book of Imaginary Lands.

The actual story involves Baudolino’s relationship with his adoptive father, Frederic Barbarossa and his wars of conquest, his (Baudolino’s) education in Paris and his companions there, their search for clues and maps to enable them to get to Prester John, the crusaders’ sack of Constantinople at the end of the twelfth century, and their journey eastwards and the increasingly weirder creatures they encounter, as they make their way to the city of Pndapetzim, the gateway to Prester John’s kingdom. The weird creatures, whose pictures can be seen around the edges of the Mappa Mundi, and in the Nuremburg Chronicle, embody all the different Christian heresies feared at the time, reinforcing the idea that the truth depends on the teller…

Our hero never gets beyond Pndapetzim; no-one there actually knows if the fabled kingdom is actually beyond the last chain of mountains, or what is there: the kingdom is also the kingdom of Heaven, if it exists, and here we are, confronted with all the possible inventions and unknowables of religion in the world; ironically Prester John’s world seems to be the refuge of all the heretics expelled from known Christian lands over the centuries. So, as well as swashbuckling adventure, we are exploring the nature, purpose and meaning of religious faith, the afterlife, and I don’t know what else… there’s even some masterly detective work in the style of William of Baskerville in the closing chapters.

I think Baudolino is an underrated work; it lacks the polish and tightness of The Name of the Rose, true, but it’s as knowledgeable and as challenging, and a compelling read.

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